Assam on a Suicide Sourse

RN Ravi[2].

The Statesman, 29 July 2012[1]

ASSAM is yet again in flames! Scores are dead, many more are feared to have suffered the same fate and/or are missing and some 200,000 have been rendered homeless in renewed bouts of ethnic violence in a large swathe of lower Assam. Flames are leaping in other areas. Chief minister Tarun Gogoi has sternly warned the miscreants and threatened to unleash the might of the state on them. True to his known reflex, he has indented more troops and money from his comrade-in-arms, Union home minister P Chidambaram, to “firmly” deal with the situation. Several districts are under curfew and the police have been issued shoot-at-sight orders. The Army has been called out as if its personnel were in barracks!

Chidambaram, and, if not him, then certainly his minions from Delhi, would descend on Assam, have closed-door confabulations with their like in the state government and commanders in uniform and, before returning to Delhi, would drop, for the media’s consumption, some beaming nuggets of confidence such as the “situation is under control” and “all would be well soon”.

The scenario is all too familiar to anyone, even those having a nodding acquaintance with Assam. Only the scene of carnage and victims differ from case to case. Such utterances from the eminences in Delhi and Dispur are not uncommon. These were heard when the Rabhas and Garos set against each other in Goalpara in 2011, when the Dimasas and Zemi Nagas gunned each other down in 2009 in the North Cachar Hills, when the Rabhas and Muslims clashed in 2008 in Goalpara, when the Bodos and Muslims butchered each other in 2008 in Udalguri-Darrang, when Hindi-speaking migrant labourers were attacked in 2007 in central and upper Assam, when the Dimasas and Karbis hacked each other in the hill districts in 2005, and when minorities were wantonly targeted in lower Assam in 2004.

One wonders at the quaint chemistry of these gentlemen who every time tell the same brazen lies and get a good night’s sleep unmindful of what happens to hapless victims. If only their conscience were not on rent!

Assam, home to innumerable ethnic denominations, is arguably the most heterogeneous state in India. Varied communities shared a common space in peace for millennia, observing traditional protocols of mutual engagement. Skirmishes of grave intensity, in colonial and even post-colonial days, were few and far between until recent decades. First to rock the boat were migrants from outside Assam, mainly from Bangladesh, whose robust demography posed a credible threat to the natives, who feared their growth would lead to the eventual loss of their ownership of the state.

 

They protested. The idioms of protests were couched in terms of imminent threats to the identity and culture of the natives. Such was the core narrative of the Assam Agitation. Although the socio-psychological impact of the Assam Agitation has not been adequately assessed as yet and is a pregnant subject for research, its aftermath has been insidious. It radiated the logic of preservation of identity and culture to the ever-increasing number of constituent communities of the state. The fear of the migrants has morphed into fear of the neighbours. The seeds for the unravelling of Assam were planted.

Ironically, the state government, abetted by the Centre, instead of pursuing the syncretic politics of inclusion — a strategy imperative for the survival of an ethnically heterogeneous society — did the reverse. It stoked and cynically pandered to the politics of ethno-exclusivism. Its indiscreet acts and omissions accentuated the latent fears of the subaltern communities and reinforced their apprehensions of the “others”. Some of them resorted to brutal ethnic cleansing. Egregious violence against Adivasis in Kokrajhar district, lower Assam, in 1992, in which scores of them were killed and over 200,000 rendered homeless refugees, was an enterprise in ethnic cleansing. It was repeated in 1993-94 in the same district against migrant Muslims. In these horrendous acts of carnage the state government looked the other way. Should one be surprised if it soon led to the birth of armed militias among Adivasis and migrant Muslims for protection, retribution and revenge?

 

Politics of ethno-exclusivism received a boost when the late Hiteshwar Saikia, then chief minister of Assam, created six ethnicity-based autonomous councils through acts of the state legislature in 1995 on the eve of the assembly elections, apparently to reap electoral dividends. His legacy is being vigorously carried on by Tarun Gogoi. The controversial Bodo Accord in 2003, presided over by him, gave a toxic twist to the politics of ethno-exclusivism with far reaching sinister implications for the stability and integrity of Assam. The accord, in order “to fulfill the aspirations of the Bodo people”, created an autonomous territorial council in form and substance that was nothing short of a subversion of the benign spirit of the Sixth Schedule.

The Sixth Schedule, as incorporated in the Constitution, was an audacious experiment in the democratic devolution of governance of a specified territory through an autonomous territorial council with considerable legislative, executive and judicial mandates. It did not stipulate any discrimination among the residents of the specified territory on any ground whatsoever. All residents had equal political rights, irrespective of their ethnicities. The Bodoland Territorial Council upended the principle of equality and introduced a sinister provision of discrimination among the denizens. Of the 40 elected seats in the council, it reserved 30 for the Bodos. Such a measure is not only insidious in principle but is egregiously iniquitous as the minority Bodos acquired a disproportionate majority share in political power. No wonder the BTC has kept neither the Bodos nor the others at peace since then.

Gogoi in 2005, with the Assembly elections due the following year, did a repeat of 1995 and created, as if with vengeance on Assam, 14 autonomous and development councils along ethnicity lines. One of these councils was for Thengal Kacharis, a small community of a few thousand, who until then belonged to the Sonowal Kachari family. The fact that their habitat falls in Titabor constituency of Gogoi was perhaps potent enough to merit a council for them. This is a classic illustration of cynical invention and accentuation of identity through amoebic multiplication of an existing one. Needless to say, each of these ethnicity-based councils has created many more disgruntled communities who, out of rancour and a sense of iniquity, are raring for a fight.

Gogoi, in his macho pursuit of the politics of ethno-exclusivism, changed the more than century-old politically neutral name of the North Cachar Hills district to a highly controversial and politically fraught Dima Hasao in 2011. It symbolises the pre-eminence of the Dimasa community. It was done — in the teeth of opposition from the majority of the district’s population and also sane elements among the Dimasas, who constitute barely 34 per cent of the population — to appease a militia group considered a surrogate of the state. The very next day of the decision on name change, some new non-Dimasa ethnic militias were born. With their sporadic violent protests, they are keeping the region restive.

Assam is straining at the seams of innumerable ethnicities. It is a powder keg and the powder is rendered ever dry by the divisive politics of ethno-exclusivism. A small spark anywhere is enough to trigger an explosion. The current conflagration raging through lower Assam is a direct fallout of this. It may be subdued using overwhelming force, but it will be a temporary respite only to erupt again soon, with no less virulence. To survive, Assam urgently needs the healing therapy of inclusive politics.  But with the state and the Union governments in sync over playing the opposite game, does it have a chance?

 

 


[2]The writer is a recently retired special director, Intelligence Bureau, and can be contacted at ravindra.narayan.ravi@gmail.co

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